The Tampon Champions

North America’s most popular brand of tampons is produced at a plant in Auburn. Once upon a time, when something went wrong there, you called in a man. Not anymore.

Tampons are something of a family business for Veronica Karlsen—her mother made them, she makes them and the Lyman resident even met her husband at Tambrands, Auburn’s largest private employer with nearly 400 employees. Between Karlsen and her recently retired mother, they’ve been at the tampon factory for 46 of the plant’s 50 years, witnessing an evolution in women’s roles in the manufacture of this decidedly feminine product and in the product itself.

Veronica Karlsen, 47, oversees Morpheus, the line that packs variety boxes, at Procter & Gamble’s Tambrands factory in Auburn. Photo by Molly Haley

“When I was first hired as an operator, I couldn’t even change a needle on an industrial sewing machine,” says Karlsen, 47, a team leader on a robotic-operated line that packs assorted boxes (the line is called Morpheus, which translates as “the maker of shapes”). She didn’t know how to, but even if she had, she wouldn’t have been allowed to. The product was for women but the serious production was for men. “Now, new hires are technicians who do everything—maintenance, lubrication; you ‘own’ the machine.”

Procter & Gamble bought Tambrands in 1997, accelerating the pace of change and modernization at the 565,000-square-foot plant 30 miles north of Portland where 9 million tampons are sewn, packaged, boxed and shipped each day.

“People don’t know about this little plant in Maine, but this is one of the best manufacturing sites in a company known for outstanding manufacturing sites,” says HR and Logistics Manager Rick Malinowski, adding that Tambrands has been named the P&G Plant of the Year four out of the past seven years. “But, when P&G acquired the company, it was kind of stuck in the 1950s and was very gender-based. There were mechanics, who were men, and operators, who were women, and never the two shall meet.”

These days, the plant is more efficient and more egalitarian than when Karlsen’s mother, Carol Holmes of Auburn, started as a combine operator in 1972. Back then she was making $1.85 an hour (25 cents above minimum wage) and Veronica, her first child, was 8 months old.

“My mom became one of the original supervisors who wore a white uniform and ironed it every day,” Karlsen remembers. “It had to be pristine.”

Naomi Williams Pray, 63, a human resources leader at P&G Tambrands in Auburn, Maine. Pray has worked for Tambrands her entire career, for over 40 years. Photo by Molly Haley

All the women wore white, as if they were nurses. Naomi Williams Pray laughs about how, earlier in her 43 years with the company, she “used to break the rules and wear some red or blue barrettes.” The Mechanic Falls resident recalls the gender divide in the workplace in the 1970s, saying, “Women would be on the belt, and tampons would go by. If an issue arose, they would turn on a light—steady if it wasn’t urgent, red if their line was down—and a mechanic would come over.”

None of the mechanics were women until the mid-1990s. In those days, gender roles were more defined, more separate, more private.

“In the 1960s, you didn’t talk about—” Williams Pray nods at a display of tampons. “The company kept it really low-profile. They used to make these discreet little boxes, but everybody still knew what they were, and you’d hide them under your sink.”

Even truckers were reluctant to talk about what they were picking up at what they called the “plug factory.” But the women who worked at the plant saw tampons all day and became blasé about them. Williams Pray used to take some of the fiber home to use in place of cotton balls when removing her bright red nail polish, and one time left wads of crimson-stained tampon parts on the kitchen table when she answered the door for the Avon lady.

For more three decades, Tampax made one type of tampon: the kind with the white cardboard applicators shaped like miniature paper towel rolls, not exactly anatomically correct. But regardless of how old-fashioned looking they were, those tampons brought women freedoms they’d never had before. Ads from the 1960s show a young woman at the beach in a red bikini, her tiny white box of Tampax discreetly stored in her purse, and the tagline “Women’s World Remade.”

The Tampax Pearl production floor at Procter & Gamble Tambrands in Auburn. The facility produces 9 million tampons a day. Photo by Molly Haley

In 1975, long before P&G bought Tampax, the multinational consumer goods corporation marketed a tampon brand called Rely. Made from carboxymethylcellulose and polyester rather than a cotton and rayon blend like Tampax and other tampons, Rely was super-absorbent—but soon was linked to toxic shock syndrome. In 1980, P&G recalled Rely. Public trust in tampons dropped, and Tampax stock plummeted.

To stay afloat, Tampax diversified, making pads, disposable diapers, diagnostic ovulation kits and even makeup. Because the word “Tampax” was synonymous with tampons, the company name was changed to Tambrands. As the Rely episode faded from public memory, Tambrands sold off its other product lines, focusing once again on Tampax. And, in 1997, Tambrands was acquired by P&G.

That acquisition would revolutionize the company culture of Tambrands, partly because P&G wanted to make a better tampon. Today, Tambrands makes tampons with rounded plastic applicators, pocket-sized versions and tampons that come resealable pouches for disposal, and tampons that are free of fragrances and dyes. Today, just 10 percent of the tampons they make are the original cardboard-applicator variety.

“Tampax had the best tampon in the world, with the largest market share, but P&G said we can do it better,” says packaging material leader Angie Marquis of Scarborough. She studied mechanical engineering in college, and though she didn’t expect to put those skills to work on tampon packaging designs, they translate. “It’s not your mother’s tampon anymore. We want to give the consumer a product that will delight. When I first started here, it felt silly saying that, and I kept thinking, ‘It’s just a tampon.’ But when you see how much effort goes into designing these, it stops being silly. Think about the girls who have a leak at school and that’s traumatic for them. This is important.”

United States Patent Office Patent of a tampon painted on Tambrands’ elevator at Procter & Gamble Tambrands. Photo by Molly Haley

P&G didn’t only want to make a better tampon; they wanted to make a better workplace, one that was more productive and efficient but also more equitable.

“Here comes P&G with this new philosophy that everybody can do everything and have the same opportunities—man or woman,” Marquis says. “The nature of the work has evolved from being more physical to more strategic, rather than just keeping the machines running.”

By 1998, the plant was operating around the clock with teams on rotating shifts. Large numbers of workers—more women than men—left the company. Some didn’t want to work nights. Some just didn’t have the mechanical skills for the new expectations. Women dropped from half the staff to one-quarter. But some, like Karlsen, stayed and thrived in the more demanding roles.

“Everybody has something they can give,” Karlsen says. “When I look at a new hire, I see a fresh set of eyes. Some are stronger in leadership, some are stronger technically, and that’s how we form teams. It’s definitely a career.”

“I love my job here, because it is practical and it involves engineering and design, and I do everything from troubleshooting on the floor to having a say in product development,” says Marquis. “I can be a voice between manufacturing and marketing.”

When Veronica Karlsen was a kid, her mother and other women worker at the tampon factory didn’t touch the machines. Now, she says “New hires are technicians who do everything—maintenance, lubrication; you ‘own’ the machine.” Photo by Molly Haley

For Tampax Radiant, the marketing department asked for a package that sparkled. But in early development, the manufacturing side couldn’t get those sparkly boxes to stay shut. The glue wouldn’t adhere. Marquis’ job was to find a better solution—and she did, not only developing a better adhesive but also replacing the metallic boxboard used to make the containers with metallic ink instead.

“When you came in 30 years ago you would have that job for 30 years,” Marquis says. You kept your uniforms white and your hands off the machines. For women at the 21st century Tambrands factory, it’s a different story. “Now, you come in and you learn, and the opportunities are huge.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer based in Scarborough. She is reluctantly grateful to Dr. Earle Haas, who patented the modern-day tampon in 1929—after a female friend gave him the idea.

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